The weakening light of the last day of October cast long shadows across the road in front of us. It was approaching four and we should have been at Aunt Margaret's a couple of hours ago. God knows we had left Beverley with plenty of time to spare. What I had not counted on was getting some dirty fuel when we stopped at Pickering. At least I presume that is where we got it. Normally I am very careful about what fuel goes into my MG 14/28 Super Sports, but needs must, and I had to refuel at a garage just outside the town. We had not been driving for more than another twenty minutes when the engine started to splutter, finally stopping with an awful cough. Usually the sign of some interruption in the fuel supply.
Fortunately Gerry, my secretary, is a pipe smoker so he had some pipe cleaners in his luggage. Doubly fortunate, he had been my mechanic in the Royal Flying Corp during the war, so knows a thing or two about engines. In fact he knows most things mechanical, coming as he does from one of the Midland's leading engineering dynasties. Despite that it still took him about an hour to clean out all the pipes. He used one of my silk kerchiefs to fashion a temporary filter that he put over the pipe leading to the fuel pump.
"Might well get clogged up again before we get there," Gerry stated. "At least if it does I will only have to clean out that one point. We should still make your Aunt's before nightfall."
"I hope so," I responded. "Don't want to be stuck out here at night."
"What's up, old chap? Scared of hobgoblins?"
"Not scared, just wary. Strange things happen out here on the moors," I responded.
"Come off it Michael, it's 1925, those sorts of beliefs went out of date with the War."
"In Town maybe. But probably not around this part of the country," I pointed out.
We mulled that over in silence as I willed the car onwards. With a bit of luck we would be able to make it.
Once we were over the next rise, it would only be about a mile or so to Timbuklan House and downhill all the way. As we crested the rise the house came into view, appearing to float over the low mist that arose from the moor. At that point the engine started to splutter. I dropped the gears into neutral and allowed the car to coast down towards the house. Fortunately, we picked up enough momentum on the run down to the entrance that I was able to turn the car sharply into the drive and run up it nearly to the door.
Aunt Margaret opened the door as we drew to a stop.
"You took that turn a bit fast, didn't you, dear" my father's sister stated as she embraced me and kissed me in the French style, one peck on each cheek.
"Not much choice really. I got some dodgy fuel and the engine cut at the top of the rise. Case of take the corner at speed or push the car up the drive," I replied.
"And I suppose you would have used Gerald to do the pushing," she commented, giving Gerry a hug and peck on each cheek. She slipped her arm into Gerry's. "Leave your luggage, I'll send Baines out to deal with it. Better get Evans to look at the car."
"I'll have a word with him," Gerry said. "He'll need to know about the lash up I did."
Aunty smiled. "You are such a clever man, Michael is so lucky to have you."
On that I had to agree.
Aunt Margaret guided Gerry into the house, I followed on behind. On the way in I commented on the surprising lack of cars. I had expected there would be a large turnout for my Aunt's sixtieth birthday. Even though she had virtually exiled herself to the wilds of the North Yorkshire Moors, as the Dowager Duchess of Kilamorgan she was one of the leading lights in establishment society Her attraction might be due to the small fact that she had been able to bail out quite a few of them with helpful loans. As one political scribbler had stated, at least a third of the upper house owed monies to the Dowager Duchess, at least another third would like to.
I suspected that one reason Aunt Margaret placed herself here at Timbuklan House was so that she could not be accused of dabbling in politics. Mind you, I also suspected that she probably had a direct phone line to Baldwin. The couple of times I had been with the Prime Minister when my aunt had been mentioned, he had almost blanched. Not that I could blame him, I have seen my aunt on the warpath a couple of times. It is enough to make anybody blanch.
"They are all over at Tampanton today. The Nesbits, those parvenus that bought the estate last year, are putting on a shoot." The tone of her statement made it clear that my aunt disapproved of blood sports. "No doubt my brother is wasting a fortune, one he hasn’t got, on the shot needed for him to massacre hundreds of defenceless birds.”
"Uncle George is here?" I asked, knowing full well she could not be referring to my father, who was out in India running a patch of Empire on behalf of the Viceroy.
"Of course he is," Aunt Margaret stated. "You don't expect him to miss out on free board and lodgings and the chance to massacre defenceless creatures do you? He arrived on Monday and I have no doubt will hang on till the last. I doubt I will be rid of him before the Christmas season starts."
"You might have him till the New Year then," I stated.
"Not a chance," Aunty replied. "I've decided to winter in Nice. Thought I would take my time going down, spend a few weeks in Paris on the way. Leaving on the fourteenth."
"I'm sure Lindsey will be happy to see you," I commented. Aunty laughed. Her relationship with Lindsey St Just was widely known, but it had always been conducted in such a manner, even when the Duke was alive, that nobody could take offence. Unlike my relationship with Gerry: Uncle George had definitely taken offence to me having 'that man' living with me.
Aunty must have guessed what I was thinking. "Don't worry about George, I doubt he will say anything inappropriate," she stated as we entered the withdrawing room. She pulled the bell cord to summons the service.
"Why not, he always has in the past," I commented.
"Dunlievin is here, with John Mitchell," Aunt Margaret replied. Just then Baines came in, my aunt ordered tea and some light refreshments, stating that dinner would be late due to the hunting party. Baines was instructed to ask the parties in the library to join us. She then continued. "Even my brother knows better than to say anything that might reflect on that relationship."
I had to smile at that information. The Duke of Dunlievin was probably one of the richest men in Britain, he was certainly one of the most politically powerful. He was also openly in a relationship with the war hero, John Mitchell.
Just then the door opened and was held for a beautiful woman to enter. I had not seen my cousin, Elizabeth Hallard for some five years, but her beauty had not diminished. If anything it had grown since our last meeting. Behind her the Reverend Paul Hallard, her husband entered, to be followed by John Mitchell.
Both Gerry and I stood as Beth entered the room. I had known her from childhood. Gerry had first met her when she had been nursing me after my kite had come down in no man's land in January nineteen eighteen. I had been lucky to survive the prang. Gerry had been posted to a training role at Waddington and taken the opportunity to visit me as I convalesced at the family seat near Boston. It seemed he was blaming himself for my crash as he had entrusted the service of my plane to another mechanic.
It was during that weekend that we both declared how we felt about each other. Beth had been witness to the events and have given us her tacit approval. Unfortunately, Uncle George had also been there and had demanded that Gerry immediately leave the house, denying him the use of the phone, even though it was late at night and a four mile walk to Boston. I learnt later that Beth had gone to the stables, saddled a couple of horses and gone after Gerry. She had found him about a mile down the road to Boston. Got him mounted and rode to Boston with him, then brought the horses back. Unfortunately, Gerry had never ridden a horse before and found the whole experience something of an ordeal.
As things turned out the following week I was deemed fit for light duty and the powers that be also posted me to Waddington to train new recruits. There I was able to establish my relationship with Gerry, which we have managed to maintain ever since.
Of course, our relationship was illegal thanks to the eighteen eighty-five Labouchere Amendment. The amendment was introduced to the Sexual Offences act as a way to attack the Duke of Clarence, whose proclivities were well known in certain sections of society. Not that it had much impact in that direction. It was the working and middle class men who got caught up by the act. Those with family connections were fairly immune against any police action, no matter how open their relationships were to the public gaze.
I greeted Beth, then Paul, then I turned to John Mitchell.
"Nice to see you again," I commented. "How is James?"
"Very upset at being the Duke of Dunlievin," John Mitchell stated.
"Why, he's known he was in line for the title for years," I pointed out.
"Yes, but he had expected to have many more before it descended upon him," John informed me. I could appreciate that. James' grandfather had died at the ripe old age of ninety seven, in nineteen eighteen a few weeks after the armistice he had been so instrumental in bringing about. The title had gone to James' uncle, who had died last year at the expected three score years and ten. Unfortunately, James' father, who was considerably younger, did not long outlive his brother, dying a few months ago.
I had been out of the country at the time, so had not made the funeral or seen either James or John since. Even with some shelter from prosecution that my position in society gives us, in general Gerry and I prefer the more liberal attitude to our relationship that exists in Paris and Berlin.
We had just seated ourselves when the maid brought tea in. Aunt Margaret asked John what he was doing these days.
"The normal you know, for a university tutor," he replied. "Mostly looking into working class social movements in Europe." It was a glib answer and one which I suspected had a great deal of truth in it. After all John Mitchell was a senior tutor at the London School of Economics and word was he was in line for a chair as soon as one became vacant or was created. One suspected the later was probably more likely.
I could not avoid thinking of the rumours I had heard of the Consultative Intelligence Committee and John's possible involvement with it. However, the existence of such a group was always denied, so John could not be involved with it, but if it did exist, being a university professor would be a perfect cover for the type of thing John was rumoured to be doing. One thing was certain, John always seemed a lot better informed than most people around him were, that included a lot of leading politicians.
"Don't tell me James is off shooting?" I said.
"No, he's upstairs resting," John replied. "There was some sort of panic at the Foreign Office and he was there all night. Didn't come home till gone seven this morning and we had to be on the eight thirty for York. He finds it impossible to sleep on trains so as soon as we got here he collapsed. He’s catching up on sleep so he can face the trials of dinner tonight."
"Are you intimating that my dinners are a trial?" Aunt Margaret asked.
"My dear lady, your dinners are not the trial, it's your guests that are the problem."
"Oh I do hope that my brother does not start giving you or Gerry problems," Aunt Margaret sighed.
"Get him talking about Africa," the Reverend Hallard suggested. His wife smiled at him. "Once onto one of his tales of the great white hunter he is unstoppable and won't talk about anything else."
"He probably doesn't want anybody asking what he was really up to in Africa," John commented. From the seriousness of his expression I thought John must know something that led him to say that.
"What do you mean?" Aunt Margaret said.
"Nothing particular," John stated. "It just one hears things."
"Do tell," said Beth.
"No, I couldn't," John replied.
The telephone in the hall rang. Baines came through to inform Aunt Margaret that the hunting party was leaving Tampanton House.
"They'll be here in an hour," Aunt Margaret stated. "Tell cook we will dine in two hours please Baines."
"Better make it two and a half," suggested John. "That fog is getting awfully thick. It will slow down their return across the moor."
Aunt Margaret agreed to the suggestion but went on to add that we might like to take the opportunity to freshen up and change for dinner. We all took the hint that had been given.
As we entered the main hallway, I pulled John aside and asked what he meant about Uncle George and Africa. I wondered if he knew more than the snippets I had heard about his activities around the time of the Second Boer War.
"Look Michael, there's nothing official but some people have asked some questions about your uncle. He's seems to have acquired a lot more funds than could have been expected of a White Hunter."
"What are you suggesting?" I asked.
"I'm not suggesting anything," John replied. "It's just that your uncle seems to have been better connected with some of the Muslim leaders in those parts than one might have expected."
I had to accept that John would not tell me anything more, so thanked him and made my way up to my room.
Gerry and I wandered down to the ground floor about two hours later. We had been expecting the first gong for dinner, but it had not sounded so we thought we better find out what was going on. Just as we came down the stairs the hunting party came in. Lady Dorothy, an old school friend of Aunt Margaret, and her husband, Sir Richard, led the way, followed by their son Martin and a young lady I did not know. Behind them came Uncle George. He looked up at us as we came down the stairs.
"Back in the country are you Michael?"
"Yes, Uncle George," I replied.
"See you've still got that hanger-on," he sniffed.
"Gerald is my companion and my secretary in that order," I stated.
My uncle was about to say something, but Aunt Margaret interrupted to inform me that James and John were in the Billiard Room and could probably do with somebody to play with. We made our way to the Billiard Room. As we approached I noticed the door was partially open.
John greeted us as we entered. "Heard him starting on you," he stated.
"Yes but aunty intervened," I replied.
"Be careful," James advised. "I wouldn't put it past George to rush into your room hoping to find you in a compromising position."
"Surely not!" I exclaimed.
"Unfortunately I think James is right," John responded. "Shaw called it 'Middle Class Morality' in Pygmalion. I think it is more a case of middle class pseudo-respectability. They love to show others up just to show how moral and respectable they are."
"But Uncle George is definitely not middle class and he is certainly not respectable. Even I've heard rumours of what he got up to in Africa during the Second Boer War and after."
"That may be the case, but most of the people he is in contact with don't know him, they only know the persona he presents. That is one of middle class respectability," John stated. "They crave to be part of a group, to have fixed rules that give them status. To be part of a group you have to define who is not part of that group. Our kind are easy targets.
"Mussolini is already describing us as being degenerates and hinting that we should be excluded from society. That maniac down in Munich is worse."
"At least he's not in power," I pointed out.
"Not yet but I would not count on him being out of power very long," John stated.
"Really John, I think you are being a bit pessimistic there," James commented. "I've read the Foreign Office briefings and they are saying he is a harmless nationalist fanatic. Anyway, his putsch failed, they've only just let him out of prison. He's lost all credibility."
"James, no nationalist fanatic can be harmless," John pointed out. "Since his release from prison in January he has been stirring up trouble. He is attracting a lot of middle class support."
"I thought he had been banned from public speaking," James said as he racked the red balls on the table.
"He has been, after the incident in February following his release," John confirmed. We tossed a coin for break, John won. "Actually the fact he has been banned might be working for him. Some of his deputies are far more acceptable to the middle class than Hitler is."
"I got the impression that he was leading a workers' party," I stated.
"Yes, both Mussolini and Hitler started off with a workers' party," John responded. "They needed disillusioned unemployed workers to give them a start. However, both had to turn to the middle class to get support and acceptability. The middle class are very good at turning a blind eye to what they don't want to see, so they do not see the brutality that both employ to support their position. If you are an opponent of either the Fascists or Nazis you are likely to find yourself beaten up or worse.”
As if to emphasise his point, John made the break, smashing the white into the cluster with such force that the reds were scattered all around the table.
"It is the middle class,” John continued, “who are providing the funds the Nazis use to pay the thugs they call Sturmtruppen to smash the offices of newspapers that print articles critical of Hitler. It's their money that funds the thugs who push liberal lawyers into dark side allies and then kick them to death."
"But Uncle George is not middle class," I pointed out.
"Then what is he?" James asked. "Think about it. He does not have a courtesy title does he?"
"No, his father died before he inherited the main title," I responded. "It went directly to his older half-brother."
"And your father holds a title doesn't he?"
"Yes, but he is the oldest son of my grandmother's second marriage to my grandfather, after George's father died."
"So, he is not in either line of succession," John pointed out. "He feels left out. He really does not feel part of the aristocracy, even though he is born into it. He's made his home in the upper middle class and is comfortable there, with their ideals and prejudices. They are making their influence felt more and more each year."
"Mackenzie got six months at York last week," James informed me, changing the subject.
"What!" I exclaimed.
"Yes, he and Peter were caught at it in the hay loft" James stated. "Mackenzie got off with six months at the magistrates."
"What about Peter?" I asked.
"Peter's a stable hand, he's been sent to the Assizes, he's looking at two years," James said.
"But Mackenzie and Peter have been together for years," I pointed out.
"We know," John replied. "Somebody was out to get them."
"You can be fairly sure about that," James said. "Apparently the chap who walked in on them is de Lorrain's chauffer."
"De Lorrain, isn't he one of Uncle George's pals?" I asked.
"Yes he is," James replied. "William de Lorrain and your uncle are both founder members of the Society for Morality and Standards."
"Never heard of it," I commented.
"Not surprising, they only set themselves up a few months ago," James informed me. "That Mosley fellow is also a member."
"Wasn't he deselected by the Tories?" Gerry asked, re-joining the conversation after he had made an excellent effort at clearing the open reds.
"Bit hard to say which came first, his deselection or him becoming an independent, word is that he will be joining labour at the next election," John said.
"It really does not matter all that much whether he jumped or was pushed. I know the high ups in the party were not happy about him," James informed us. "I suspect he probably moved before they could do anything about him. Since then he has become something of a rabble rouser.
"Anyway, both your uncle and de Lorrain are in the SMS. One thing they have been doing recently is pushing for cases to be taken to court. You know the standard procedure on a first offence has been a caution. They've been campaigning to put a stop to that.
"It also looks as if they have adopted a policy of outing couples in ways that ensure they are prosecuted. Hence de Lorrain's chauffeur walking into a place where he had no reason to be and catching Mackenzie and Peter. Ten years ago the chap would have been told to mind his own bloody business, now Mackenzie has six months and Peter's facing two years."
"That's bloody unfair on Peter," Gerry stated. "Why wasn't he dealt with in the magistrates."
"Don't know but we can guess. I had a word with Uncle David on Friday before we came north. Hopefully, he can pull some strings on Peter's behalf," James stated. "The result of course is more of us are taking up residency in Paris or Berlin."
"I would advise Paris," John stated. "Berlin is too unstable."
"Be careful," James advised. "I have the advantage I can demand trial by the House, which I am sure they would wish to avoid. Unfortunately neither you, John nor Gerry have that right. Though they might have a problem dragging war heroes into the courts."
"Gerry did just as much in the war as I did," I pointed out.
"I know that, but you were the flying ace and John was dashing around Arabia, following Lawrence. Gerry was a mechanic. Doesn't play that well."
Just then the tam-tam rang out with the first gong for dinner. Gerry looked at the table and commented we probably just had time to finish the game. James agreed. There were two reds and the colours left. It was John's shot. A few minutes later the table was cleared. We congratulated each other on the game and made our way to the reception room just as the second gong sounded.
Sir Richard and Lady Dorothy were already there, talking to Aunt Margaret. Baines came over to us with a tray of Amontillado sherries. He offered it first to James.
"Thank you Baines," James said as took a glass.
Baines offered it next to me. "Milord". I took a glass and thanked him. It was then offered to John and Gerry in turn. As Gerry took his glass, Beth and Paul entered the room. Baines took the tray to them. Once they had got their glasses of Amontillado they came over to join us.
"I don't know why it is, but Baines always makes me feel like he is doing me a favour when he serves me," Beth commented.
"It is his natural instinct for one's place in society," Paul commented. "Rural vicars rate quite low on the social scale don't you know."
"And butlers rate higher?" Beth asked.
"English butlers do," James commented. "Most of them can trace their family back to before William the Bastard. They have better breeding than the majority of us Dukes and most Earls. It's just that most of it is unofficial."
"How do you make that out?" Beth asked.
"Take Phillips, our man," James said. "He's the son of one of the estate women, used to be a housemaid in the time of my great-grandfather. Phillips is the spitting image of my great-grandfather. Checked the parish records one day, found he was born six months after his mother married the estate blacksmith. Of course, he wasn't the estate blacksmith then, that position was given to him when they married."
"You mean?" Beth asked.
"Yes, it was given to him for marrying a woman who was carrying my great-grandfather's child. Though it might be debatable if my great-grandfather was actually my great-grandfather."
"What!" Beth exclaimed.
"Well, what was sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. More than one lady of the aristocracy has found solace in the arms of one of her husband's employees. In my great-grandmother's case it was said to be the estate bailiff. Who incidentally had a striking resemblance to her husband but was generally reckoned to be somewhat more handsome and had far better manners."
"Quite so," Aunt Margaret stated as she approached us, clearly having heard part of the conversation. "James dear, I do hope you are not giving away too many secrets of the noble houses." James laughed and gave a slight bow to my aunt.
I noticed that Baines had set the tray of Amontillado on the sideboard and was no longer in the room. The tam-tam sounded for the third dinner gong. I acknowledge Lady Ann who entered the reception room just as the gong sounded. If some of the more radical elements had their way, she would have inherited my father’s title and not him. I had not seen her earlier in the day and wondered when she had arrived.
"I was avoiding your uncle," she informed me when she came up to greet me. "I do hope Margaret has not sat me near him."
I smiled and conveyed a similar hope to Lady Ann.
"You were cutting it a bit fine," John pointed out.
"I was on the phone to your boss's wife, James," Lady Ann stated. "Reza Khan has been proclaimed Shah."
"It was inevitable, Ahmed Shah has been in exile since twenty-three, they were bound to replace him," John said. "Though I do worry about what it will mean for Persia."
Just then Uncle George came into the room. As he did Baines announced that dinner was served and opened the doors to the dining room.
Aunt Margaret had seated Uncle George to her left, next to the Dowager Countess of Draghair who I realised I had not seen earlier. He did not look pleased. Even I had to have some pity for him, it was rumoured that the Dowager Countess had once kept the Prince of Wales in conversation for three hours. One wag had commented the only way the King had got the prince to go on the South African tour was the threat of having him entertain the Dowager Countess at Windsor.
Dinner passed off not too disagreeably. The food was good and the conversation at our end of the table was quite entertaining. Lady Ann was full of gossip about who was with whom this season. Uncle George was heard to make a comment about eating with staff. It was clearly aimed at Gerry.
"I always eat with the staff when I can," Lady Ann announced. "They keep the best bits for the cooks table you know." She turned to me and whispered. "Hopefully, that might put him off asking me to marry him again."
"He didn't!" I exclaimed a bit too loud.
"Three times this year," Lady Ann replied.
"I haven't seen the Duchess this season your Grace," Uncle George said.
"Not surprising,” James replied. “We attended the wedding of her cousin, Princess Mafalda, and then went onto Locarno, as I had to ensure the arrangements were in place for the treaty negotiations."
"How did they go?" Lady Ann asked.
"Very well, they are due to sign them in London in December."
"Your wife did not come back with you then?" Uncle George asked.
"No, she's gone onto Florence to visit her grandmother."
There was a short humph from Uncle George. At that point Aunt Margaret took charge and moved the conversation onto other subjects.
After dinner the ladies moved through to the withdrawing room and the gentlemen retired to the Billiard Room where they could smoke. I am not a fan of smoking, even though Gerry smokes a pipe so I excused myself saying a needed some fresh air and stepped out onto the terrace.
The evening fog was quite thick and unusually holding. Normally the fog would rise with the sun going down, and then clear after a couple of hours. This fog was hanging around, if anything it was getting thicker. Beams of yellow light from the windows penetrated the fog for a few feet, giving a ghostly illumination to the statutes that stood a couple of yards from the terrace.
"A bit morbid, isn't it," Lady Ann commented from behind me. I must have jumped. I had not heard the door from the withdrawing room open. "Sorry to have scared you Michael."
"Why morbid? I asked.
"Look at it. You can just make out Goliath's head apparently floating in the light from the Billiard Room. David is completely obscured. That head just seems to be floating in the fog."
"Strange rather than morbid I think, but the fog does give an other-worldly feel to the gardens," I commented. "Though I must admit that on nights like this I always feel there is something out there watching, from beyond the fog."
"I know what you mean Michael. It's knowing all those statues are out there, with empty eyes, watching. I must say I never really liked these gardens, overrun as they are with statutes, I cannot understand what you Aunt sees in them."
"I don't think she sees anything in them Lady Ann," I responded. "They came with the house, which she has for her lifetime. Fully maintained and supported. Unfortunately, she is not allowed to alter it."
"Ah the problems of an entailed estate," she said. "One’s options are limited."
"So, may I ask what has brought you out here onto a terrace in somewhat inclement conditions?"
"I told the Dowager Countess that I needed some air," Lady Ann replied. "It seems that your uncle must have mentioned something about his proposal of marriage to me and she was somewhat supportive of his offer."
"I can understand your refusal of his proposal," I stated. "He must be at least thirty if not forty years older than you. What I can't understand is why he's making it, he must know it will be rejected."
"Thirty-thousand acres, two London squares and half a dozen plantations, all un-entailed," Lady Ann replied. "One of the great advantages of the modern peerages, the fortune is not tied to the title. My late husband's grandfather made his money in steel and property. Both my late husband and his father managed the wealth well. Unfortunately, Robert was so busy managing his wealth he never managed to give me a child. So, now I am a very rich widow, apparently in need of a husband."
"I am sure you can do better than Uncle George," I stated.
"No doubt I can," Lady Ann replied. "Though I do not see the necessity of burdening myself with a husband. Miss Jenny provides me with all the companionship I need."
I laughed. "Where is she this weekend? It is unusual for your companion not to accompany you."
"She's in Oxford for some function which she has to attend. At least that is what she says. I suspect she wanted to avoid the wilds of Yorkshire.
"By the way Michael, you should be careful," Lady Ann continued. "Your uncle made some comments about your lifestyle to the Dowager Countess."
I sighed. "No doubt it will be all over polite society by the end of next week then."
"You can be pretty sure it will be."
"I hope he does not make any more comments on it once we re-join the ladies," I stated.
"Don't worry, I'll get him talking about Africa," Lady Ann promised. "Once he is on that topic he can outtalk the Dowager Countess."
On that I had to agree.
I returned to the Billiard Room where James was just finishing off a game against the Reverend Paul. He acknowledged my return to the room. I looked around and could not see Gerry. James potted the black then cocked his head indicating we should go through to the Library.
"Sorry Michael, but after you left your uncle made some pretty unpleasant remarks to Gerald. He said he was getting an early night and retired."
"Can't say I can blame him," I replied. "Wish I could retire early, but I suppose I am expected to join the ladies."
"You are," James replied.
"At least Lady Ann has promised to get Uncle George talking about Africa," I stated.
"Well that should keep him from commenting on you and Gerry," James replied. "I'm sure John will be interested. There seem to be a few unexplained incidents in your uncle's African past.
"Do you think Gerry might be interested in becoming a Baron?"
I looked at James in surprise at his abrupt change of subject. He continued. "I am sure I can get Stanley to add him to the New Year's honours list. We could do with him in the House."
"You could but what about me?"
"You'll get there anyway when your father pops it," James commented. "I'm serious, we could do with some more support on certain issues in the Upper House and Gerry would be a useful addition. In addition he can afford it." I looked at James surprised. Although Gerry was officially on the household accounts as my secretary and received a salary as such, most of the money going into the household account came from him. Something I had thought was not widely known. James continued. "Look I know how strapped you are for cash, and I know that Gerry is part of the Lobart Engineering dynasty. I had to check them out a few months ago when Lobart's were bidding for the Australian Navy contract. Seems your Gerry holds about twenty percent of the shares. That means he's almost as rich as your aunt, certainly richer than Lady Ann. He can afford to be a peer and could do some good work in the house. Also, think how much it would upset your uncle."
The thought of Uncle George having to address Gerry as ‘My Lord’ made me snicker.
"We should probably get back," James pointed out. "It's about time we re-joined the ladies."
"If only so Lady Ann can get Uncle George talking about Africa."
We returned to the Billiard Room and I chatted with the Reverend Paul for a few minutes, getting the evil eye from Uncle George the whole time. Then James announced that we should re-join the ladies. From his manner, this certainly did not fit with Uncle George's wishes, but as James was the ranking noble in the room, he had no alternative but to go along with the suggestion.
As we entered the withdrawing room, Aunt Margaret instructed Baines to have the drapes drawn. I know that in most houses it is the custom to draw the drapes as soon as the sun goes down, but amongst moorland folk the custom is to keep the drapes open long after dark. That way the light from the room can act as a beacon to anyone lost on the moor.
Baines closed the drapes then asked if there would be anything more.
"No thank you Baines, that will be all for the evening. I think we are all more than able to help ourselves if we need anything."
"Thank you Milady," he said bowing the head slightly, then he left the room.
"Cheeky blighter," Uncle George said. "He should have waited to be told he was no longer required, not asked. Servants, don't know their place these days."
"George! That was uncharitable of you," Aunt Margaret snapped. "Baines was doing me a favour by being on duty tonight. He was supposed to have been off, but Charles the under butler's wife is near her time and he wanted to take her over to her mother's, which is near the hospital in case there are complications."
"Brandy?" James asked generally to the room, strolling over to the sideboard where the decanters stood.
"Yes please," I responded, as did John. James poured a couple of balloons and handed them over. Then poured one for himself. I noticed he did not offer one to Uncle George.
One of the footmen came in with some logs for the fire. Soon it was spreading a warm glow over the whole room, giving an opalescent light to the brandy in the balloon glasses. Martin and the young girl I had learnt was Alice Dupont, an American lady, were in the corner chatting about something known only to themselves. Sir Richard and Lady Dorothy kept glancing in their direction with approval, no doubt hoping that Alice was an heiress able to bring financial support to Martin. Their farming estate in Holderness provides a good income, but not enough to maintain their historic house.
"At the castle in Scotland, we would have the bairns coming to the doors to recite poems or sings songs for rewards this night," the Dowager Countess stated, rather loudly.
"I suppose they would here," Aunt Margaret observed, "if we weren't so isolated."
"Don't you get worried being so isolated, living out here on the moors," Lady Dorothy commented.
"Not at all," Aunt Margaret replied. "There are far more people here on the moors than most people think. It's just we are more spread out, but we have our own community and our own ways, even our own ghosts and spirits… if you listen to the tales the locals tell."
"We always used to tell stories about ghosts and witches on Halloween," Beth said.
"You must know some stories about witches and stuff from Africa," Lady Ann said to Uncle George. "I'm told its very common there, all that mumbo jumbo."
"Don't dismiss it so glibly, Lady Ann," Uncle George replied. Lady Ann having turned towards me and gave me a knowing smile. She knew she had Uncle George distracted from saying anything to do with me.
"We were always hearing stories about it," Uncle George continued. "Every village had its own witch doctor and a weird lot they were. Each with their tales and stories. I know I saw it in operation twice." He paused, looked around the room and satisfied himself that all present were paying attention and ready to hear one of his reminiscences of Africa.
"Major Stanarled back in late 1912 formed a hunting party to go after rhino. Stanarled and his party sailed down from Suez to Mombasa where I met them with a party of bearers. From there we trekked inland and over the next two weeks we had some bloody good shooting. Except we did not get close to a single good rhino.
"We got most of the other big game. Stanarled bagged a big bull tusker the first full day of hunting. The next day, someone else in the party, Sir Michael Aitchison, brought down another with even bigger tusks. Lion, cape buffalo, leopards and cheetahs we got plenty of. We even managed to get a few more bull elephants, though nothing with tusks the size of the first two. However, the rhino were disappointing. We saw nothing worth shooting until the close to the last day of the shoot. One of the trackers saw it, a heavily horned white rhino.
"For the next three days we tracked it, but never came close enough to get a bead on it. Then, just when we were about to give up, the damned beast comes out of the bush, like an express train, straight for Sir Michael. To be honest, I thought Sir Michael was a goner. However, he stood his ground, turned to the charging beast, raised his rifle and took careful aim. It could not have been more than four yards from him when he fired. The blighter almost got Sir Michael but was felled with a single shot and landed at Sir Michael's feet.
"On the way back to the coast we stayed at the village of a chief who I knew fairly well."
"How come you knew him?" John asked.
"Some of the villagers were Muslim and I would assist in their travelling, with their families, to the Haj," Uncle George said.
James took the opportunity to help refresh everybody's drinks.
"Slave trading," John whispered to me. "Merchants would take boys over to Arabia, saying they were taking their sons on the Haj, once there, the boys were sold into slavery. We've suspected George of involvement for some time, but we have never had proof."
"Do you have it now?" I whispered back.
"No," came the whispered reply. "But suspicions have been confirmed."
Drinks refreshed Uncle George continued. "I had often employed trackers from this village and a short time before I had helped the chief out when he had some trouble with a rather ambitious half-brother. That evening there was a feast put on for us during which one of the boys we had with us as a bearer went off and got involved with the daughter of the witch doctor.
"As we were leaving next day the old man came out of his hut and threw a handful of powder in the boy's face, muttering some words which I did not understand. I am fluent in Swahili, which is the lingua franca of that part of the world and have a good understanding of most of the native dialects. This though was beyond anything I knew. My head bearer, a half cast who had been with me for years told me that this was a Tanju or ancestor curse. The powder was made up of grave soil and crushed human bones. Whatever it was it worked. That night the boy developed a fever and went into a delirium about being chased by his ancestors. Early the next morning he died.”
As might be expected there were gasps from the ladies and mumbled comments from some of the gentlemen when Uncle George reached the climax of his tale. He looked around at his audience, as satisfied grin on his face, knowing he had their attention for his next instalment.
"The other occasion was on the very last expedition that I took part in before I returned from Africa. Lord Blanston, Sir Henry Waterford and William de Lorrain had hired me for an expedition in the southern part of Egypt and northern Sudan. Around the area west of Khartoum. It's a very strange land around there. Even today.
"The purpose of the party was archaeological, they were undertaking a survey with regard to some theory Waterford was working on about the early Egyptian rulers. Never quite understood it, but Waterford claimed they were probably Nubian. Blanston also seemed to think it was quite important. Why they should think that a load of blacks could build a civilisation like Egypt, Lorrain and I don't understand.
"Towards the end of the trip were got to the village of Alle Sinder. I think that is how it is pronounced. It was here that we heard a story of an old temple some fifty miles out in the desert which was still being used by a religious group.
"The locals being strict Muslims would have nothing to do with it. They insisted that it was the haunt of Djinns. From what they did tell us about the place it sounded, according to Blanston, like some offshoot of the Zoroastrians. Waterford disagreed, the said he thought it was probably some Gnostic group.
"Anyway, we set out to find the place. That took us nearly ten days. Whilst it was only some fifty miles as the crow flies, the journey for us ended up being over one hundred miles. There are places in the desert that a camel can cross but are impenetrable to the horse. However, when we got there it made the whole trip worthwhile. The place was in a dry wadi cut into the side of a mesa. It was carved into the solid rock, like Petra. Unlike Petra though, the rock into which it had been carved was a projection from the end of the valley. As a result the place had openings on three sides, which let in light.
"Nowhere in Africa have I ever seen anything to compare with that temple. The only thing I have seen to that could compare with it was in India, but even that was less than half the size of this place. The people there were not an offshoot of the Zoroastrians, nor where they a Gnostic group. They worshipped the Earth Snake, though whether this was an ancient Egyptian worship, or as Waterford suggested something brought in by the Ptolemaic Greeks I do not know.
"The temple itself was carved out of the sandstone but had been faced with white marble and it glowed in the desert sunlight. The marble must have been imported from a great distance. There are no supplies of it in the region and only limited sources in the whole of the Nile valley.
"The whole building was carved with the most intricate sculptures of snakes, mostly cobras. As we walked into the temple I noticed that there were a great many snakes in the shadows. It's strange but it is rare to see a snake in those lands, even though they abound. Normally they prefer to avoid the habitats of man.
"I must say that I was not happy with the sight of them. Never had liked snakes since I first went out to the dark continent. Now even less. Nearly lost my life following a viper bite in Morocco. Since then I have been a very cautious man, when it comes to snakes, so I took out one of my revolvers, the one I keep for snakes.
"Blanston was in the lead as we entered the temple. He was fascinated by the place. It seemed from what he was saying that this place had no right in being where it was. It should have been a couple of thousand miles away. Anyway he was poking about everywhere and looking into places, where, given the number of snakes around, I would have thought it better not to look.”
Uncle George stopped to take a pull on his brandy, as if fortifying himself against the memory of the ordeal.
"Just as he got up to the altar a huge cobra reared up in front of him. Hood expanded, hissing like a kettle and all ready to strike. Blanston pulled out his revolver and fired. I fired mine at the same time. The beasts head was virtually blasted off.
"No sooner had we fired than an old priest appeared from behind the altar. He was somewhat upset from the death of what I gathered was the most sacred snake in the temple. I tried to indicate to Blanston and de Lorrain that we should get out as fast as possible. Waterford had stayed by the entrance studying some inscription.
"Anyway, this old priest started to jabber away at Blanston. I don't think I have ever seen so much hate in a person. With a stream of what could only have been very obscene invectives, if we could have understood the lingo, he threw the remains of the snake at Blanston. Then vanished. I suppose in fact he just slipped into one of the rabbit warren of passages which no doubt filled the place, but from where we were it seemed as if he had just vanished into thin air.
"We left the temple immediately and returned to the Nile and thence downstream to Cairo. Altogether that journey took us six months, for we stopped off at quite a few historic digs on the way. I don't think any other members of the party realised it, but there was a marked increase in the number of snakes in the regions through which we passed. They never bothered us, but I could not help feeling a bit disturbed. Usually it was very rare you saw a snake, now it seemed I would see one or two every day. Definitely not normal.
"We left Egypt for England on the S.S. Margareta bound for Southampton. The incident happened on board. The Margareta was just entering the Bay of Biscay and there was one hell of a storm. One of the most unnatural things I have ever seen was that despite the gale force winds there was a thick rising fog. I spoke to Enderby at the Admiralty about it. He said it was bloody unusual but could happen in freak circumstances.
"Most of the passengers were in their cabins. A few of us, including Blanston and myself had stayed in the first class lounge. Blanston was playing bridge. I, never being able to get a hang of the game, was reading a collection of short stories from the Strand Magazine.
"The first person to see it was the steward. He was bringing a brandy over to me, when he dropped it. I looked up to see him standing like stone pointing to the centre of the room. There was the biggest cobra I have ever seen or heard of, rising up, hood open, next to where Blanston sat at the card table. It was a good eighteen feet in length. I ask you to remember that the average one is six to nine feet in length.
"Well before I had chance to get my revolver out, it had struck Blanston, on the throat. Right on the jugular vein. The steward chopped at the thing with the fire axe and I pumped a couple of rounds into it. It was though too late for Blanston. He was dead before we removed it from his throat."
"Oh, how awful," Aunt Margaret exclaimed. "So, the priest cursed Blanston and the snake got its revenge."
Although Uncle George appeared to have more to say, he kept us in suspense while he turned and put a log on the hot fire. It must have been wet for as he started his reply to Aunt Margaret it hissed malevolently and filled the chimney with smoke.
"Well in a way, yes. They killed the person the priest cursed, but they did not get revenge. You see as I said I always have been wary of snakes. For that reason I carry a revolver loaded with shot, especially for snakes. It's not easy to hit them with a bullet. When the priest threw the snake at Blanston I noticed that he had missed. The only damage to the beast was from my shot."
There was a silence in the room. One of the logs on the fire spat repeatedly. Somewhere out on the moor a dog howled.
"Don't you worry that the curse might land on you?" Lady Dorothy asked.
"No Lady Dorothy, I do not," Uncle George replied. "I believe I fooled the old priest."
From somewhere there was a dry crackling sound, like long dead laughter.
The wind outside gained a new force. The heavy drapes moved as it forced its way through cracks around the doors and in the windows. A sudden gust blew smoke and fog down the chimney and into the room. For a moment it hung formless. Then the motion of the air started it swirling into a pool of smoke and fog that writhed serpent-like in the centre of the carpet for a few moments.
Alice Dupont moved closer to Martin, who put a protective arm around her. The warmth of the fire seemed to evaporate from the room and in the whistling of the wind I heard strange words spoken in what sounded like an ancient tongue.
Slowly the smoke and fog started to come together, taking on a solid form.
There was a gasp from Lady Ann and she pointed at the centre of the
carpet just as another downdraft filled the room with thick smoke. In
the moments before visibility was lost, I saw, coiled on the carpet
and poised to strike, a large cobra.
Through the gloom I heard a muttered expletive and thought I recognised the voice. At that point the wind died and the fire started to draw well, helping to clear the room. We searched but there was no sign of the snake.
We buried Uncle George five days later, on Guy Fawkes Night. The funeral was very well attended. As he passed me to throw his handful of soil down onto the coffin, James whispered to me “Look at them all. Come to make sure the old bugger really is dead.”
© Nigel Gordon, October 2019.